8 August 2021

Weekly briefing: Bordering on chaos

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Usually it’s only the keenest Westminster watchers who complain about ‘the comms’. Most people take little notice of the content of government announcements, let alone the manner in which they are delivered. But when it comes to travel restrictions, the effect of changes at the border on thousands of families will be immediate and tangible – massive inconvenience and expense at best, being imprisoned in a hotel and charged over £2,000 for the privilege at worst.  As a result, everyone hoping to go abroad is paying close attention to what the Government is doing – so it’s worth reflecting on what they will observe.

The approach to the border throughout the pandemic has been, to put it mildly, capricious. Back in 2020 there were ‘travel corridors’, but the second wave and the Delta variant put a stop to those. Then in May the Government announced the ‘traffic light’ system, where it was possible to travel to ‘green’ countries without quarantining on return. This extremely limited list included places like Australia and Singapore, which were essentially impossible to go to as they were closed to foreigners.

Since then, there have been frequent changes to the list, notably a hokey cokey with popular destinations like Spain and Portugal. As of July 19, people who have had both vaccinations do not need to isolate if they’ve been to an ‘amber’ country, which, given the success of the rollout, makes the whole list a lot less relevant. But that didn’t deter ministers from creating an ‘amber-plus’ category just for France, and threatening an ‘amber watchlist’, the purpose of which seemed to be to convince travellers that if they got unexpectedly frogmarched into hotel quarantine, they only had themselves to blame.

These were scrapped in an update published late Tuesday night. The timing was handy for the morning newspaper deadlines, but not very sympathetic to families who might need to quickly make new plans.

Anyone who’s trying to travel this summer will recognise the anxiety these inconsistent rules are causing, but there’s much more to it than that. The pandemic has been devastating for the travel industry – at one point, air passenger traffic fell to less than 2% of its February 2020 level – and representatives are saying the opening up is too little too late.

Let’s not forget the effect of border policies on Covid itself. The whole point of restricting travel was to keep out dangerous new variants, something the Delta-ravaged UK has demonstrably failed to do. Earlier in the year, some were arguing for a complete Australia-style shutdown, though I doubt a country as connected as Britain can ever avoid new variants (and no one is looking at locked down Australia with much envy now). But if the aim is to insulate the UK from strains Epsilon through Omega, rewriting the travel rules weekly won’t achieve it.

Perhaps most concerning is the complete lack of transparency about what’s driving these decisions. If ministers in a democracy are going to cause some people immense hassle and deprive others of their freedom, they should be very clear about the basis on which they are doing so. Amid all the contradictory pronouncements and mixed messaging, that clarity has been sorely lacking. At the same time the rules do not appear to be applied equally, with climate minister Alok Sharma visiting 30 countries, six of which are on the red list, without having to isolate.

Brits have shown remarkable understanding throughout the pandemic, sticking to restrictions and accepting swift turnarounds like the Christmas lockdown, in a common effort to save lives. But on much longed for and meticulously planned holidays; on the prospect of seeing family abroad after such a long separation; on delays, queues, cancellations and sudden expense, I suspect they will be far less forgiving.

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Alys Denby is Deputy Editor of CapX.